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The Nikki Haley wild card for 2024

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Is America doomed to a rerun of the last election? Whichever of the two parties dumped its frontrunner would probably have next year’s vote sewn up. Though Joe Biden and Donald Trump are both unpopular, America seems resigned to a stale but terrifying repeat of 2020. The likeliest — or least implausible — disrupter at this point is Republican outlier Nikki Haley.

The former South Carolina governor is no moderate, as she is sometimes mislabelled. Haley would impose a five-year term limit on civil servants, send US special forces into Mexico and sharply cut social security. She thinks Biden is weak on Russia, China and Hamas. But the contents of her platform are irrelevant. Everyone looks moderate compared to Trump. Because she is not him, Haley would have dramatically better prospects of defeating Biden.

Her problem is that Trump is still the prohibitive favourite for the nomination. Yet the odds against a Haley upset are not as remote as they seem. Money is no issue. This week the group funded by billionaire Charles Koch endorsed Haley. In the past few days, she has gained support in the critical early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlike her two main non-Trump rivals, Haley has divided her resources between the two states. By contrast, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, has bet the ranch on the Iowa caucuses. Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, is gambling on New Hampshire.

Haley is tied with DeSantis in Iowa and leads Christie in New Hampshire. If she finished second to Trump in both states, she could bring momentum into her home state of South Carolina, which holds the third primary in February. At that point, donor and media pressure on DeSantis and Christie to drop out would become acute. The other contender, Vivek Ramaswamy, a self-made billionaire, is angling so cartoonishly to be Trump’s running mate that his fast-dwindling fan base would probably not matter. By contrast, almost all of Christie’s voters and some of DeSantis’s would go to Haley. Indeed, that outcome is likely. Dubbed by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post as DeFuture, DeSantis looks increasingly like DePast. Christie’s opposition to Trump, meanwhile, is too principled to have wild card potential. His strategy was predicated on goading Trump to the debate stage, which he has failed to do.

Haley, on the other hand, has deftly threaded the needle between the Maga base and “Never Trump” voters. In the first Republican debate, she raised her hand when candidates were asked if they would back Trump were he to be the nominee. She also said she would be inclined to pardon Trump if she became president. This lends a veneer of plausibility to her claim that she would be Trumpian without the chaos.

The critical moment would come in the Super Tuesday primary in early March. The number of delegates on offer in the opening primaries is trivial. Super Tuesday is when Trump would expect to lock down the prize. If he emerged from that big contest without having done so, he would be badly wounded. At which point Haley would remind Republicans that she would beat Biden by a clear margin. Trump, on the other hand, would still be playing victim-in-chief.

Haley would also have the legal calendar on her side. The scriptwriters of America, Season Six, might be accused of stretching credulity at this point but it is conceivable that Trump will be criminally convicted before the general election. The day before Super Tuesday, March 4, is the opening day of Trump’s Washington trial for the January 6 2021 storming of Capitol Hill. That will immediately be followed by Trump’s New York trial over paying hush money to a porn star. The other two — in Florida on the classified documents and in Georgia on his attempt to overthrow the state presidential result — could start at some point in the campaign.

Trump’s legal schedule will be so crowded he will have little time to stage his big rallies. His money pressures will also be mounting. Haley, who is nothing if not entirely biddable, has scope to offer Trump a deal in which he would pull out of the race in exchange for a pardon. That, in short, is her path to the big prize.

It would be spurious to put numbers on her chances. They are not high. But it is worth stressing that America is not relishing another Trump vs Biden contest. The fact that Haley has been on many sides of many issues might be a problem. But she is a politician; it has been known to happen. It is precisely Haley’s malleability that would make her dangerous to Biden in the general election. This leaves Democrats in the awkward position of both dreading Trump and rooting for him.

edward.luce@ft.com

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